Pennine Way Stage 19: Byrness to Windy Gyle

Published 27 January 2016

Pennine Way signpost at Byrness.
Pennine Way signpost at Byrness

“So you folks heading to Byrness then?” asked the driver as we boarded the National Express coach that was stood in the coach terminal at Newcastle.

His thick Mersey twang suggested the driver and his passengers had already come quite a distance. Most of them were heading to Edinburgh, and the tone of his voice suggested that those that alighted at Byrness were few and far between. Indeed, as we raced through the Northumbrian countryside, the coach doors didn’t open once until it had pulled up an hour later to let us off.

That Byrness is on the National Express network at all is nothing short of a miracle. It is, after all, a tiny community in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Completely surrounded by forests, it is not the obvious calling stop for an intercity public transport service.

Catherine standing next to the Pennine Way information board at Byrness
Celebrating a return to Byrness

It only gets its service because the village sits just off the main road to the far larger town of Jedburgh; a place that is slightly more deserving of its coach link. Deserving enough anyway for the coach company to justify running one coach a day through it in each direction. The coach even gets a bit of competition on its journey, in the form of a local bus service which also runs once a day, a few hours earlier.

Not surprisingly, we were the only ones to alight in the village, or more accurately, alight outside the deserted and still firmly closed petrol station on the edge of Byrness.

Six months after being snowed in there, we were finally back to finally complete the Pennine Way. Or at least, we hoped.

As soon as we’d arrived back home after our abortive trip, the diaries had come out whilst we tried to work out just when we’d be able to get back again. It would not be easiest of jaunts. Such is the remoteness of Byrness that it can take almost a whole day just to get there, and getting back to London from Kirk Yetholm isn’t much easier. It was a lot of travelling for a mere two days on the hills.

In the end we settled on the August bank holiday. I was going to be in the north of England anyway, having spent a week walking the Dales Way to Windermere. A mere three trains would take me to Newcastle where I’d meet Catherine fresh off her train from London. Ironically, her journey would be slightly quicker than my own.

Byrness was in blazing sunshine – a far cry from the state we’d left it in. We wandered towards the hostel, seeing the village in a whole new light. True, the petrol station was still closed, but on the other side, the hotel had opened up a café. And down at Forest View, the beer cupboard seemed to be groaning even more under the weight of the bottles. But most importantly, it looked like we really were finally going to finish the Pennine Way, and there would be little that could stop us.

Large boulder on Byrness Hill
Byrness Hill

The next morning we heaved our packs on our backs and headed off to do the steep but steady climb out of the forest, and on to the top of Byrness Hill. On a clear day the hill provides the walker with a fine view of the forested landscape below; a sweeping panoramic including the previous days’ route.

Looking back is in some respects preferable, for this outstanding scenery is, rather perversely, blighted. Here is another case of land being under military control, as the hill leads on to the Ottorburn Ranges, which are owned and used by the Army for training purposes. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence owns 20% of the land in the Northumberland National Park. Thankfully live bullets are no longer used in the area, however the concept that a National Park – a place established to conserve a beautiful environment – can be scarred by military use seems rather wrong to me.

Still, that was the least of our worries, as a rather fine path soon degenerated into one of the Pennine Way’s trademarks: peat bog.

Photograph of a book with a school pupil leaping over a bog

By this stage we’d walked over our fair share of the Pennine Way’s most defining feature. Many an old picture of Pennine Way walkers in the 1960s and 1970s shows people leaping over giant peat groughs, or squelching through muddy morasses. In Earby Youth Hostel we’d found an entire photo album of them. With modern eyes though, it’s hard to imagine. In at attempt to prevent erosion in the fragile landscape, many sections of the Pennine Way have now been paved over with large stone slabs; so much so that sometimes if you had your eyes closed, and didn’t know where you were, you might well think you were just walking down the shops for a pint of milk. Well, until you put your foot down in the wrong place, and find that to the side of the flagstone is a huge muddy puddle.

The paving, however, is usually concentrated on the most popular walking areas, and the further north the trail goes, the more sporadic the stone flags and board-walks get. And there are some places you come to where you think the flags really should be there, but aren’t. And there were few places that fitted the bill more than the delightfully named Ravens Knowe where even the sunshine couldn’t disguise a wet, muddy quagmire of a path.

As Catherine went wide – very, very wide – round in an attempt to escape the worst of it, I opted to bounce from grassy hummock to grassy hummock, in an attempt to spend as little time on the ground as I could. This went amazingly well until I realised that I’d run out of hummocks. I stood on the final one, assessing the situation. Most of the ground in front of me was bog, but there was one patch that looked like it was dry enough to stand on; a barren-looking piece of earth in an otherwise soggy quagmire. But putting my best foot forward I was greeted with a distinct case of that sinking feeling. Literally. Before I knew it, both my feet were being sucked down into the ground, and they were doing it fast.

Catherine walking on the Pennine Way whilst surrounded by peat bog and pools of water
Watch out for the bog!

“Hang on! Hang on!” shouted Catherine, spotting my predicament from her location of safety which seemed to be several miles away, whilst I stood static in fear.

Now I’ve (so far) never been stuck in quicksand however I have a suspicion it shares some similarities with the bog I was now stuck in. My first attempt to struggle out only saw me sink down further and faster, and soon I was up to my waist in it with absolutely no idea how to get out. There was nothing to push against with my feet, just more dank smelling ooze, so that ruled that out. Catherine was busy shouting at me that she was coming, whilst simultaneously being thwarted in her attempts by other large sections of bog. Not wanting her to be trapped too, I tried to get her to stay away whilst I desperately worked out what on earth I was going to do.

Truth be told, I’ve no real idea how I actually got out. I couldn’t even minutes after it happened. It was just all a blur. I think I had a kind of feeling that leaning forward would help. Indeed, doing so would have distributed my weight more widely over the bog, thus reducing the chance of me sinking; knowledge which just goes to show that my GCSE in Physics has indeed had at least one practical application in the years since I was at school. For years I’d considered the knowledge that someone walking in a stiletto heel would do more than damage to a polished floor, than a full size elephant doing the same, to be distinctly useless. Now those same principles may have just saved my bacon.

As well as leaning forward, I’ve an image of pulling myself forward out of the bog, although frankly I’ve no idea what I used to lever myself on that pull. But somehow I managed it and stood there, half my body soaked and covered in peat bog, feeling rather cold.

“Is the camera all right” asked the love of my life who’d had finally made it over to me from her hundred mile diversion and now that she had, was determined to show her most caring side.

The view into Scotland from Ogre Hill
The grass is always greener on the other side of the border

They say that the grass is greener on the other side, and having ascertained that the camera was, indeed, all right, I decided to test out that hypothesis.

Much of the journey between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm is spent following a fence that marks the border between Scotland and England. The path spends most of its time on the English side, but occasionally decides it fancies a change and pops over into Scotland. As I looked over the fence into Scotland, I noticed that the ground looked far more stable over there. Did this line of wire and fence posts have some magical properties? Or was it just because no one ever walked on the Scottish side because the path was on the other? Who cared? In an attempt to avoid finding myself falling in any more bog, I hopped over the fence and strolled along happily and in safety.

It was soon necessary to return to England, however the worst was over as the path now became paved. Even so, the paving isn’t guaranteed to protect the walker from all the worst that the hills can offer as I found out a mere half hour later. Having finally dried out from my dunking, I was happily admiring the view as I walked, meaning I failed to notice several planks were missing from the board-walk I was on. The result being that I promptly put my foot down in to a deep pool of very cold water.

Cloud descending on Chew Green on the Pennine Way
The clouds begin to cover Chew Green

Chew Green is the site of a Roman Camp and Fortlet, although the few remains and earthworks are now mostly colonised by sheep who watched with vague interest as I took the opportunity to sit down on some dry land and wring out my sodden socks. They might have even wondered why I was wearing thin trainer socks rather than the stiff walking socks. I confess I found myself wondering the exact same thing myself.

There had been a strong wind blowing since we’d got up on the ridge, and the blue skies from earlier the day had been blown off to somewhere else. In their place, grey clouds with an ominous look about them had arrived and no sooner had we struggled in to our waterproofs, the showers began. Ah, this was more like the Pennine Way I knew and loved.

The wind and rain whipped our faces in a most delightful way; every drop stinging against our cheeks. It was a delight to finally make it to the mountain rescue hut at Yearning Saddle where we could at least shelter from the elements and have some lunch.

“Cold out!” came a voice as we opened the door to find we were not the only ones seeking respite from the weather.

Yearning Saddle hut on the Pennine Way
Yearning Saddle hut

The hut was pretty crowded with of fellow walkers. True there were only six of us in total, however it was a small hut. We stepped inside to join a couple who were out doing a circular walk, and a retired couple called Philip and Jean who were two fellow Pennine Way walkers that we’d chatted to earlier in the morning outside of Byrness. As we munched and lunched, the wind battered and howled against the sturdy wooden building, although slowly but surely, the rain stopped and the blue skies began to slowly re-appear. The wind, however, was with us to stay.

As is customary we perused the shelter’s log book, which was full of moans and groans about the horrendous weather conditions. All except one who’d scrawled: “I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about, I came in here to shelter from the sun!”

Being the last ones entering, we were also the last ones out when we finally stepped out of the hut once more and headed on along Lamb Hill before climbing up the endearingly named Beefstand Hill, which gave us our first view of the mighty Cheviot, which, along with a range of hills named in its honour, dominates the landscape.

Strange names seemed to be a feature of the area as we marched on over Mozie Law and Plea Know, although the names aren’t what the area is best known for. In fact, it’s distinctive for the herd of wild goats that roam the landscape, which we caught a glimpse of in the distance. Where they came from, no one really knows. How long they’ve been there, no one is particularly sure. About all that is known is that they’ve been resident on the Cheviot hills for centuries.

Holding onto the trig point at Windy Gyle
Watch out, it’s windy at Windy Gyle!

These days, the word “gyle” is a term related to the brewing of stout or ale; a word added to our language courtesy of the Dutch where it is derived from a word meaning “to boil, ferment.”

Quite what it means in the context of the place name Windy Gyle, is another question entirely. It seemed unlikely that some ancient predecessor of Arthur Guinness popped up here with a mash tun and started brewing pints for the thirsty goats. The first part of Windy Gyle’s name was certainly true though. If we’d thought that the breezes were a tad on the stiff side earlier, it was nothing to the battering we got as we tried to take in the panoramic views from the summit.

The summit itself was a large pile of rocks known as Russell’s Cairn, on which someone had ceremoniously plonked a trig point, which at least provided a something to hold on to as we struggled to stay upright in the face of the wind. And no, Russell wasn’t a brewer either. The cairn itself is a Bronze Age burial cairn, although its name is newer; named after Lord Francis Russell who was murdered nearby in 1585.

For centuries the border country was a place of lawlessness. Clans and families would frequently switch allegiances between the English and Scottish crowns based on what suited their own interests at the time, meaning that neither monarch’s will was particularly headed. And then there were the border reivers; bandits and thieves who would raid farms and steal from the residents.

An attempt had been made in the 13th century to establish a kind of buffer zone, splitting the area into six “Marches” – three on each side of the border – which would be run by Wardens who were given the unenviable task of trying to keep the peace, and enforce the law. At regular intervals the wardens would all meet at isolated spots along the border to agree tactics and co-ordinate their efforts; places such as Windy Gyle. It was at one such meeting that Lord Francis Russell – a former warden himself and a senior politician – was murdered.

Signpost at Windy Gyle
Signpost at Windy Gyle

As well as marking history, the cairn also marked the spot where we would leave the Pennine Way for the day for a long detour to our accommodation.

With no road access or habitations in the area, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm is one of the trickiest sections of the Pennine Way to organise a bed for the night. Some hardy souls opt to camp, or bivvy down at one of the two mountain rescue huts. Others even attempt to do the whole 27 miles in one day. But most walkers make arrangements with their accommodation providers in Kirk Yetholm or Byrness, who – usually for a small fee – will pick you up at an arranged point a few miles down in the valley.

For me though, one of the joys of long distance walking is moving from one place to another each day. You leave one village or town in the morning, then end up somewhere completely different in the evening. The thought of going back to somewhere you’ve just come from, or indeed getting to the next place a day early, well it just feels wrong. But thankfully we’d tracked down an alternative. For deep in the valley below was a remote farmhouse B&B.

One of the most famous farmhouse B&Bs on the Pennine Way was Uswayford Farm, however its owners had retired in 2009; a fact I had found after I’d headed onto the internet in search of answers after repeated phone calls went unanswered. It turned out that the new owners had abruptly left following a harsh winter that they were completely unprepared for. They’d even planned to do B&B and had taken several bookings, leaving some Pennine Way walkers turning up and finding themselves looking at an empty house. Although someone was presumably still paying the phone bills.

Thankfully though, we’d found an alternative for a few miles along in the Coquet Valley, lies Barrowburn Farm with its tea room, camping barn, and B&B. The one problem was that it was a three mile diversion to get there, mostly following the Border Country Ride bridleway. But at least it was downhill and we headed down in to the valley, gradually losing height and passing by more forests and the intriguingly named Murder Cleugh, which curiously included a small tombstone, engraved with the text:

Mock tombstone at Murder Cleugh - written on it is: Murder Cleugh.  Here in 1610 Robert Lumsden killed Isabella Sudden
There’s been a murder!

Murder Cleugh
Here in 1610 Robert Lumsden killed Isabella Sudden

The memorial, we later found out, was created by a local resident who was a local history expert with masonry skills. In an attempt to ensure that local history was nor forgotten, he went round erecting several such markers in the area.

A spectacular rainbow welcomed us as we got close to our destination. A huge arc, it was one of the biggest and finest I’d ever seen, with both ends fully visible. Was there a pot of gold at one of the ends? No there wasn’t, but one of them did seem to coincide with Barrowburn farm where we were promptly welcomed with a cup of tea and a cheese scone.

Starkly furnished with bare floors, and a rather old looking bathroom with a hot water tap that spluttered enthusiastically as it dispensed its wares, Barrowburn perhaps wasn’t the most glamorous B&B to stay in, however the welcome was warm, and the views out of its windows were fine.

The remote Barrowburn Farm
The remote Barrowburn Farm

I’d never stayed somewhere so remote. Besides the smattering of farm buildings, a phone box and a road, there was absolutely nothing for miles around. Just big skies and big hills. As we ate our evening meal I was almost hypnotised by the stunning sight of clouds sailing through the valley.

With most walkers safely tucked up in the comfort of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, or raiding Byrness hostel’s beer cupboard, I knew where I wanted to be. This was perhaps the finest view we’d seen all day, and one that most Pennine Way walkers would never see.

We were lucky. Very lucky indeed.

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